What do former boxer Frank Bruno, comedienne Ruby Wax, and former labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell have in common? They’re all celebrities who have suffered from depression. And perhaps more importantly, they are all open in the media about their past mental health problems.
Britain is fairly obsessed with celebrities. Go into any newsagents and you can see various magazines and tabloids telling us about every aspect of famous people’s personal lives. Increasingly, mental health problems seem to be a big part of this. A lot of the time this is presented in a typically insensitive and ignorant way: the Sun drew widespread criticism when, in 2003, it had the front page headline ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’. Similarly magazines will often show pictures of thin celebrities who have ‘gone too far’ with the unsubtle implication that they might have an eating disorder.
In short, many celebrities have trouble keeping their problems secret. Media attention must often make things worse. Someone with anorexia who has a photo of themselves on the beach broadcast around the world isn’t exactly going to suddenly feel good about their body. Such voyeuristic and often inaccurate reporting is sadly common when it comes to mental illness, and is not limited to celebrities. But an increasing number of famous individuals are now being open about mental illnesses they may have dealt with, for example actress Gwyneth Paltrow has openly talked about her post-natal depression.
For the general population this openness can be really important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gets mental health issues out there so people take notice. Secondly, when celebs are open about it this reduces stigma and makes having them seem more normal. As a result it is possible that this encourages mental health problems to be uncovered and tackled. A huge proportion of people suffering don’t go and speak to a health professional due to fear and other reasons. Celebrities may give people confidence to do so: when Kylie Minogue was fighting breast cancer the number of women getting screened increased. It’s possible that celebrities being open may have the same beneficial effect on mental health.
However there may be slightly worrying results of this phenomenon: this normalisation of mental illness might go too far. In a way some problems have become almost fashionable in recent years. Checking into the priory for a bit of rehab for example seems like a bit of rite of passage for rock stars. Many celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Kerry Katona and Catherine Zeta-Jones have said they have bipolar disorder in recent year, so much so that there is even a book called ‘You Don’t Have to be Famous to Have Manic Depression’. Of course this is true: the vast majority of people with bipolar aren’t famous, and the vast majority of celebrities are not bipolar. But the media mainly talks about these people because they are famous.
The result is that we may get a slightly skewed description of the illness: a neat press release by their publicist which emphasises how well they are doing. In addition famous people tend to be rich, and opt for private care, rather than getting help with the NHS – not very realistic for most people. Many people with bipolar spend recklessly when manic- again not a problem if you are minted. I always notice that the negatives are often underemphasised in celebrities with bipolar, and there are often descriptions of the ‘positive’ aspects of their illness, so the idea of the ‘creative, tortured genius’ in all of those with bipolar persists. Some even make light of having this diagnosis by using it for publicity.
Many celebrities though do some very good work for mental health awareness. To be fair to Kerry Katona she helped publicise a research project on bipolar at Cardiff University. Stephen Fry has also made a very good documentary about bipolar disorder.
Many famous faces have also joined the ‘Time to Change’ campaign (http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) which aims to increase awareness and reduce stigma about mental health problems. But there is still a problem in that celebrities in our culture are deemed successful: therefore this suggests mentally ill people can be very successful. This is a good optimistic message in a way but is sadly not always true.
However, what is perhaps more concerning is the research evidence that the publicity of celebrity mental health problems can directly influence the general population. Take eating disorders. Celebrities with eating disorders are well publicised in tabloid media and gossip mags. Those without eating disorders may also say things which may influence their fans: Kate Moss for example said ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’- not particularly helpful for those at risk to eating disorders. Research also shows, a relationship between ‘celebrity worship’ and body image in teenage girls i.e. those who are obsessed with celebrities are more likely to have concerns about how they look. For drugs, it has been suggested that a recent decrease in teenage drug use is due to the squeaky-clean nature of young musicians of today (Tinie Tempah, Ellie Goulding) being tee-total, compared to the openly addicted Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse in the early noughties.
Also for suicide, which is strongly related to mental illness, research in Taiwan and China has shown significant increases in suicide rates after a high profile media suicide. Research in western countries has failed to show a similar effect after high profile celebrity suidices such as Kurt Cobain. Although media reporting still needs to be sensitive to prevent copycat deaths this doesn’t always happen. When former child TV presenter Mark Speight hung himself the grim details were given, including some papers having a photo with an arrow so you could see exactly where is body was found.
So perhaps this is a double-edged knife. Sometimes mental illness in celebrities can lead to distorted or often simply dangerous reporting in the media. But increasingly it seems that their publicity is being harnessed for good to increase awareness and encourage people to seek help. Our national obsession with celebrities is unlikely to go away, so when one has a problem let’s hope media reports will be understanding rather than judgmental, and use this for public education rather than gossip.
If you want any information or advice about the issues raised in this article here are some useful sources:
- You can talk to your GP about any concerns
- NHS choices: This website has an A-Z of health problems and information on them http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Pages/hub.aspx
- NHS Direct: Their website has a health checker service www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/en/CheckSymnptoms where you can find out about a number of conditions including mental health problems. You can also phone them 24/7 on 0845 4647
- The Manic Depression Fellowship is a good source of information on Bipolar Disorder: http://www.mdf.org.uk/?o=56878
- National Drink Helpline: 0800 917 8282
- Mind Info Line: This provides confidential information about mental health. Phone 0300 123 3393 (9am-5pm Monday-Friday) or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sane Line: This provides information and support about mental health difficulties. Phone 0845 767 8000 (6pm-11pm)
- Samaritans: They provide confidential support to those in distress, including those who are contemplating suicide. Phone 08457 90 90 90 (24 hours a day) or email email@example.com